There was a man who worked downtown in one of our large cities. Each day he rode the commuter train from his lovely suburban home to the inner-city. The train went through the impoverished areas of the city, past decaying tenements, dilapidated public housing, and dingy streets. When the train slowed down, the fellow could see into the bleak apartments, and when it was especially slow, he could look into the even bleaker faces of those who lived in those drab apartments. He could see the unemployed gathered around a fire on a vacant lot, waiting for someone to come by and pick them up for day labor. He could see the children playing on dusty basketball courts, laying out of school, and he wondered who cared about them.
At work, he would often catch himself staring into space, thinking about all those people in that desperate environment. It became increasingly difficult for him to fall asleep at night. When he would close his eyes all he could see were those depressing scenes and those desperate people. He determined that he had to do something about it. So he did. Now, when he rides the commuter train, he pulls down the blind so he doesn’t have to look at the depressing environment around him. He now is at peace … or is he? If he does have peace, what price has he paid for it? And how long will it last?
Keep that picture in your mind, as we return to our scripture lesson for today. The lesson climaxes with a description of God that defines God’s character and brings us to the heart of one of the world’s richest energy sources – compassion. Let that word about God become the soil in your mind in which we plant our thoughts today. Look at it again.
In the course of those many days the king of Egypt died. And the people of Israel groaned under their bondage and cried out for help, and their cry under bondage came up to God. And God heard their groaning and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob. And God saw the people of Israel, and God knew their condition. (Exodus 2:23-25).
Is there a more descriptive word about the character of God in the whole of the Bible? Look at it. In four action words, we have a clear picture of God who loves and cares and intervenes in the lives of his people.
God hears – “God heard their groaning”.
God remembers – “God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob.”
God sees – “God saw the people of Israel.”
And God knows – “God knew their condition.”
Now that puts us squarely on the question which is the theme of our sermon today: When are we most like God?
Now the obvious answer to that is when we act as God acts. Doesn’t that make sense? We are most like God when we act as God acts. I could stop there. But it would make for a very short sermon. So let me do a bit more than that … Let’s move in our minds with the question, “When are we most like God?”
We will find our answer, at least the beginning of it, in our scripture lesson today. A powerful leading hint comes from looking at Moses. In the scripture, there is a giant gap in Moses’ biography – from the time he was about three years old when he went into the palace to live with Pharaoh’s daughter and that’s noted in verse ten, until “one day when Moses had grown up” in verse 11. Now there’s our hint.
What does “grown up” mean, as a description of Moses here? It’s more than chronological and physical, I believe. Listen to verse 11: “When Moses had grown up, he went out to his people and looked on their burdens; and he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his people.” Had he not looked on their burdens before? Had his ease and comfort in the palace blinded him to the suffering of his people? Had he pulled the shade down in his mind in order that his heart would not be touched by their oppression?
It’s easy to do that, isn’t it? Easy to pull the shade of our mind so that we will not feel with our heart the oppression and suffering that’s going on around us. It is even easy to be a part of the oppressive system, and not let it get to us.
I’ve been reading a book that has pronounced its judgment upon me in a searing way. It’s a deeply moving and beautiful autobiography of a talented black woman, Maya Angelou. She calls her story, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. She tells about growing up as a Black person in our country. One sentence captures the pathos and tragedy of it all. Listen to her: “If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat.” Isn’t that descriptive and powerful?
Consciously for some; unconsciously for most of us, we have been part of a system that held a rusty razor to thousands of people like Maya Angelou. But, for so many years, we pulled the shade of our mind in order that our hearts would not sense and feel the pain of it.
But Moses was “grown up” now and when he looked upon the burdens of his people, he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew. Isn’t there a connection here with being like God? Listen to verse 23: “In the course of those many days, the king of Egypt died. And the people of Israel groaned under their bondage, and cried out for help, and their cry under bondage came up to God.”
Moses was “grown up now;” he looked upon his people’s burdens. That’s the beginning of being like God; to look and see the suffering of others. Now when he saw the Hebrew being beaten by an Egyptian, he murdered the Egyptian.
That was a crazy thing to do – an act of undisciplined anger. We applaud Moses’ awareness of his peoples’ suffering, but there’s no justification for murder. Violence and killing, even for a good cause, is unjustifiable. The pages of history are stained with the blood of those killed in the name of “good causes,” and of religion, even the Christian religion. Minds capable of virtue produce vice also.
But that’s a sidetrack, and we can’t go down that path if we’re going to pursue our theme. Come back to Moses.
There’s an interesting twist of irony in the record of this incident. The day following the murder, which Moses thought was a secret, he intervened in a fight between two Hebrews. But he was impotent in the solution. He had no influence; but worse than that, he was scornfully challenged: “Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?”
It was that response of his own kinsman that made Moses afraid, afraid that the Pharaoh was going to find out about his sin, so Moses fled from the Pharaoh. And that brings us to a second incident in Moses’ life, which pushes us toward an answer to the question, when are we most like God?
Moses fled from Pharaoh and stayed in the land of Midian. When he arrived there, he sat down at a well and the daughters of the priest of Midian came to draw water. Shepherds in the vicinity came and drove the women away and used the water that they had drawn to water their own flocks.
Again, Moses looked and saw oppression. He came to the aid of the women, and delivered them out of the hands of the shepherds, then drew water for them. There was no killing here, but there was action on the part of Moses – he is becoming more “grown up” as he looks on the oppression of people.
When are we most like God? “God heard their groaning” – Moses looked on the burdens of his people. We are most like God when we look upon and see the suffering of others.
Let’s press our question further by looking at another person who plays a significant role in the drama – the daughter of Pharaoh. We’re moving backward in our Scripture. Look at verses 5 and 6.
“Now the daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, and her maidens walked beside the river; she saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to fetch it. When she opened it she saw the child; and lo, the babe was crying. She took pity on him and said, ‘This is one of the Hebrews’ children.” (Exodus 2:5-6 RSV).
Focus on a very human dimension of the story that is captured in the sixth verse. When she opened the little ark, she saw the child. The baby was crying, and she had pity on him. That’s what I want to underscore. She had pity on him. Curiosity was changed to compassion and her compassion overrode pride of race and station. She recognized the child as a Hebrew, and she knew that her father wanted all Hebrew baby boys killed. But as soon as the infant cried, her heart was touched and she entered empathetically into the Hebrew experience.
That’s the point I want to make. Nothing is more needed in our day than empathy. To be able to identify with others to share their experience, to laugh with those who laugh and weep with those who weep.
So now I say it boldly: We are most like God when we have compassion. It is not enough to have pity. Our pity must become compassion. We are most like God when we have compassion. Pity is a feeling, an emotion; compassion is rooted in the same feelings, but goes deep and issues in action.
That’s what happened when we raised over $200,000 to dig 30 wells in Zambia. It’s not hard to make the point. Pity for prisoners and their families must issue in compassion as we follow through in a specific Prison Ministry that we have initiated. Pity for people living in hovels for houses must become compassion that gives money, and drives nails, and paints to secure a Habitat for Humanity house for a needy family. Pity for those who are poor and cold and don’t have the money to pay their light and gas bills must become compassion that allows Memphis Light Gas and Water to add a dollar per month to your own bill to pay heating bill in emergency situations.
You see, compassion comes from a deliberate identification with another person until we see things as he sees them, and feel things as she feels them. That’s the place to which God seeks to bring all of us, as he brought the Egyptian Princess.
But most of us want God – but not what God wants of us.
Look at one other action of God which we guide us to determine when we are most like God. God “heard their groaning.”
There are times when we cannot speak. Our pain and grief cannot be expressed in words. So in our anguished silence we lay our lives before God. Everything we are—the riveting pain that tears at our hearts; the foreboding anxiety that renders us impotent; the sorrow for our loved ones who are sick and dying, some of them lost and without God; the emptiness of death. God hears the voice of groaning, even when the groaning that does not issue in a sound.
That’s good news for us … more than good news, it is life giving. But in this sermon conversation, it is a challenge. We are most like God when we pay attention to others the way God pays attention to us. F.B. Meyer suggested that tears have a voice and God interprets it. If we look closely we will see the tears of a lot of folks. Will we interpret those the way God would, and respond?
When are we most like God? Rehearse and reflect on those four action words that give us a clear picture of a God who loves and cares and intervenes in the lives of God’s people. God hears. God remembers. God sees. God knows.
Go thou and do likewise!